As my father was dying, I finally got to know him | Adam Buxton | Life and style

In February 2015, I was in my dressing room at Pinewood Studios, about to shoot what turned out to be another failed television pilot. I now have so many of these to my name that I’ve been awarded a Failed TV Pilot’s Licence. This allows me to board any project and cruise at a low altitude, nearly breaking through the clouds before plunging back down to earth and crashing underwhelmingly.

I was taking selfies that made me look handsome when my sister called and said she’d just accompanied our dad to a meeting with the doctor. He’d been told he had mesothelioma, cancer of the lining of the lung. “Could be worse,” I thought. How important is a bit of lung lining? After all, if you have a favourite jacket and the lining gets knackered, you can still wear that jacket, right? According to the doctor, lungs and jackets aren’t as similar as you might think, and Dad was given three to 12 months to live. He was 91, well into bonus time but, still, it’s not what anyone wants to hear.

In light of my sister’s call and the news of his grim prognosis, I realised that moving Dad into the flat at the end of our garden was my last opportunity, not only to play the part of the dutiful son, but to finally get to know him in a way that would afford me lasting emotional closure and, more importantly, could one day be turned into some kind of one-man show or book. I loved my dad, but our relationship had always been frustratingly formal. He was from a generation that valued keeping it all tucked in over letting it all hang out. That was also his policy on shirts and willies.

When I was little I thought Dad was just the absolute best guy around: clever, handsome, funny and successful. He was a columnist and travel editor on the Sunday Telegraph and I loved travelling with him, seeing him charm hotel managers, flight attendants and heads of tourism who fell over themselves to do his bidding. In those days, no problem was too big for Dad to solve and no opportunity to make our lives more exciting was missed.

Sure, he could go too far sometimes. We once stayed at a resort in Barbados that Dad was writing about and one evening we were taken to an open-air reggae concert by a local PR person. I’m fairly certain it was Mum and Dad’s first open-air reggae concert. I wish I could report that it was the night my passion for music was awakened, but I was just confused by how different we looked to all the locals and how gut-quakingly loud the music was. Seeing the look of alarm on his young son’s face, Dad leaned close to the PR person and asked in a loud, posh voice if the concert could be turned down. The PR person laughed before realising Dad was serious. Even at six, I had a sense that this was not cool. (I just emailed Mum to fact-check this recollection and she confirms it was not cool.)

At boarding school, I started to get depressed whenever I knew Dad had to travel. I worried he might never come back. One of many low points during my first term as a boarder was when Mum and Dad came to pick me up for a “leave out” (one of two weekends a term when you could stay out overnight), only for us to drive to Heathrow, where Dad had to catch a flight to New York.

Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) by Christopher Cross was playing on the radio as we approached the terminal and the chorus “When you get caught between the moon and New York City…” – which may just have been a euphemism for severe delays – struck me instead as a sign that Dad’s plane was going to crash. I knew it wasn’t a rational thought so I stayed quiet, but I couldn’t shake it.

As I did my best not to cry, Dad reached back from the front passenger seat, found my hand and gave it a series of soft squeezes. Thereafter Dad used the language of squeezes whenever he had anything emotional to communicate. As we got older and the emotions got more complicated, the squeezes became more expressive. That spring, when Dad looked round the flat in Norfolk and took in the preparations we’d made for his arrival, I got a shoulder squeeze that, even in his weakened state bordered on painful.

Soon after, we met with the local GP and it was agreed that there was little to be gained from any aggressive treatment for his cancer. The GP explained that if he took his various pills when he was supposed to, Dad was unlikely to be in any pain and the main challenge would be keeping his energy levels up. To that end, a nutritionist at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital encouraged him to load up on noodles, butter, cheese and other foods that for most people might be considered naughty.

That was bad news for me. I’m not fond of dairy products, and cheese makes me especially sad. In the months that followed, I found cleaning up after toilet accidents infinitely preferable to preparing cheesy noodles, cheesy scrambled eggs, cheesy liver and other cheese nightmares for Dad, which, more often than not, he didn’t even eat.

The nutritionist also arranged for a regular supply of smoothie supplement drinks and stressed the importance of consuming at least one a day. They came in a wide range of foul flavours and only ever acted on Dad as a powerful emetic. Between the smoothies and the cheese, one of us was gagging most of the time.

By the end of summer 2015, Dad was averaging two or three minutes to make the trip down the six-metre corridor between the living room and bedroom. His legs, which just a few years before had popped with hiking muscles, were now papery and wasted. As he shuffled along in his bathrobe, cane and tufts of white hair sticking up from his skinny head, he looked like Yoda but pale pink and all the Force used up.

For most of the time Dad was living with us I was working on another failed pilot. It was one that got quite close to becoming an actual TV show, so the pressure was on to deliver several scripts. In practice, that meant I’d spend several hours a day staring at my computer, not writing scripts and feeling that I ought to be making the most of the time I had left with Dad.

Before he moved in, I’d imagined conversations filled with tender reminiscences, confessions and closure. “Hey, Daddy, do you remember that holiday to Greece when we were 12 and Clare trod on a sea urchin and you told us we should pee in a bucket and pour it on her foot to make the spines come out?” We’d laugh with gratitude for all the good fortune we’d enjoyed over the years, then Dad would say, “Come closer, Adam…” I’d lean in and he’d say haltingly, “I’m … I’m sorry I didn’t smile more,” or “I wish we hadn’t sent you away to boarding school. We did it for the best reasons, but I would like to have spent more time with you when you were still so young,” or “I just wanted you to know that I thought the three-star review you got for BUG in Edinburgh that time was very unfair – they were reviewing it as if it were a one-man show when it was clearly a presentation of other people’s work with some of your own very funny material mixed in, but people often find it hard to properly appreciate things that aren’t easily categorised.”

Thing is, you’re unlikely to strike up a heart-to-heart chat with your son for the first time while he’s standing over you until you’ve finished your smoothie, getting annoyed when you don’t take your pills or hoisting your nappy on before bed. Also you’re more or less deaf. And you’ve got cancer. In the end we were just two uptight men who found it easier to be on our own.

Then one night in mid-November 2015, when I was watching TV with my wife, my phone rang. It was Dad calling from his bedroom. “Adam? Something extraordinary’s happened.”

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I don’t know who I am,” replied Pa.

My chest elevator dropped a few floors. I had been so focused on Dad’s physical deterioration, I hadn’t considered what might be happening to his mind.

Over in the flat I found him sitting up in bed looking worried. “It’s the strangest thing,” he said, all the hardness gone out of his voice. “I woke up and I no longer had any sense of who I am.” I fetched a family photo album and found that he was able to recognise and identify everyone in it, so the problem wasn’t with his memory. Instead, it was his sense of self that had short-circuited.

We went and sat in the living room. I made some tea and set it down for Dad with a couple of milk chocolate Hobnobs, hoping to refocus his mind on a simple pleasure. “Have you ever dunked a biscuit?” I asked, prepared for him to tell me that dunking biscuits was vulgar, barbaric or grotesque.

“Of course I’ve dunked a biscuit,” he replied.

Dad dunked his Hobnob in the tea and for a moment I worried that he would fail to take it out before the submerged portion detached and sank, but luckily he withdrew it. “It’s great to dunk a biscuit, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yes,” replied Pa softly before continuing, as if to himself, “Occasionally, I feel that I’m absolutely irrelevant.”

OK. Time to shift to a conversational gear I hadn’t used with Dad before.

“Who is relevant?” I asked.

“Ah, that’s the big question,” said Dad, still not really looking at me. “That is where it starts to be frightening.”

“Why would you be frightened by it?”

“Because we spend so much time and effort making sure that the state of our being is what it ought to be, and it becomes very unsettling if you start suspecting that it doesn’t very much matter.”

“Well, it doesn’t much matter. But that’s why we make things and organise things, isn’t it? Otherwise, of course it’s all meaningless.”

“How are you feeling?” I asked after a while.

“I feel much better now,” said Dad weakly, “but only because you’re there.”

I didn’t like to see him vulnerable and frightened. On the other hand, it was preferable to seeing him crotchety and impatient.

“The case with me is, I have no relevance. If it weren’t for the fact that there would be a response from you, I wouldn’t speak. Because that would remind me that I was the only person left in the world and that would remind me that I didn’t exist.”

I asked him if he felt panicky. “Of course. I’m panicky because I don’t belong anywhere.”

“You belong here,” I said, and for a while neither of us spoke.

When I was confident that he was OK and through the worst of the morphine fugue, I asked if he’d like me to put on Air Force One with Harrison Ford. Dad liked Harrison Ford. We watched Indiana Jones one Christmas towards the end of the 80s when Dad was starting work on his novel, The Proving Ground. “That’s who should play me when they turn my book into a film,” said Dad.

Dad didn’t say much the day he died. I was sitting by his bed, still hoping he might rally to deliver an inspiring farewell speech, have a crack at the meaning of life or just say, “I thought your song Sausages was very good.” Instead, he drifted in and out of lucidity, occasionally gripping my hand softly or raising his rheumy eyes to meet mine, but obstinately refusing to get cinematic.

But just before he had zoned out completely, Dad slowly reached out his arm, took my hand and brought it to his face. “He probably wants me to wipe his mouth or scratch his ear or something,” I thought, but to my surprise he gave my hand a kiss. Oh shit! I thought. This is it. Closure time!

It didn’t look as though he was going to die at that very moment, so I asked if he’d like me to read to him and looked over at the shelves filled with all the books that had made the trip from Newhaven earlier in the year. Dad gave me a trembling thumbs up. “How about this one?” I said, picking out Master And Commander from a row filled with all the volumes in the same series by Patrick O’Brian. I remembered that Dad had once tried reading Master And Commander to me when I was very young, but I thought it was boring. I preferred the Mr Men books, which must have been painful for Dad, like one of my children turning their nose up at David Bowie only to get excited about Justin Bieber. I held up Master And Commander for Dad and he gave me another thumbs up.

As soon as I began to read, the moment felt over-burdened with significance. I tried my best to give the audiobook performance of a lifetime, but within a few lines I stumbled on some nautical jargon, and when I mispronounced the name “Maturin” as “Maturing”, Dad waved his hand emphatically for me to stop. I apologised and asked if he wanted me to continue. Feebly, he reached across and pushed the book out of my hands. I’d failed the audition for my own Moving Moment With Dying Dad scene but, I reminded myself, he’d kissed my hand. That wasn’t nothing.

This is an edited extract from Ramble Book: Musings On Childhood, Friendship, Family And 80s Pop Culture by Adam Buxton, published by HarperCollins on 3 September, £16.99. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com

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